The Two Key Skill Sets Startups Must Develop To Grow

In “Why Winning Streaks End”, Rosabeth Kantar, a professor at HBS, explains the key to maintaining momentum in any company is maintaining the discipline of every day processes. Similarly, Atul Gawande’s book Better echoes this idea. For surgeons, the best way to keep patients safe and healthy is ticking through a checklist before each surgery.

As I’ve watched a handful of startups grow, the pattern I see emerging from most of them is their ability to persistently transform chaos into process. And then continuously improve the way they do things.

At the beginning, each of these companies pursued product development with something akin to Lean Startup Method. The founders identified a problem, spoke with customers and quickly iterated their solution into products the market would buy.

After the prototypes were built, the founders needed more help building the product and developed a process to hire engineers to grow the development team. Next, these companiess shifted into sales and marketing mode, pitching and selling potential customers. In so doing, they defined and refined their go-to-market process. When the customer acquisition methods were somewhat in place, these startup created a third process to recruit salespeople and build a marketing organization. And so on for customer support, sales operations, human resources, finance and every other key activity of a business.

Once in place, these processes can’t remain static. Processes must stay relevant and productive through persistent improvement. This means using software to instrument processes, charging team leaders with the responsibilities to create new ways of doing things and pushing the company towards rapid improvement.

For some, the word process has a strongly negative connotation. It’s probably because we often notice the processes that don’t work: the line at the DMV, the vacation time approval or airplane boarding. While those may need some work, we shouldn’t simply throw the baby out with the bathwater and pan all processes.

Code check-in regimens, hiring procedures, OKR setting routines, annual reviews - all of these work and to great benefit of the employees, teams and company. What was Zynga’s Playbook for launching games if not a list of proprietary processes?

Broadly speaking, I think this means startups need two skill sets as they grow: the ability to design processes and the ability to maintain/improve/destroy processes as the business evolves.

Jan 1, 2014

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